Beloved Neighbor

Fred Rogers' message of love resonated with children of all ages for more than 30 years

Appreciation

February 28, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

I grew up in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, and the news of his death at 74 yesterday saddened me just as surely as if he had actually been the gentle man next door.

I am a Pittsburgh native, and I have known Fred Rogers - and Daniel Striped Tiger, King Friday XIII and X the Owl - since I was 2 years old.

Those were Mr. Rogers' puppet characters on The Children's Corner, an award-winning children's show filmed at WQED, then a nascent public television station in Pittsburgh.

Born in Latrobe, Pa., and educated at Rollins College in Florida, Fred Rogers was a "go-fer" for NBC when he quit to go to Pittsburgh to develop a children's show for a station that wouldn't be on the air for a year.

His friends thought he was nuts.

I was older, about 12, when Mr. Rogers took his puppet friends to a neighboring set and created Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which would become one of the longest running children's program on public television, and one of the most honored.

On the first episode, he walked through the front door of his soundstage house, singing "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?"

He took off his raincoat and his suit jacket and slipped into the zipper-front cardigan sweater that would become his trademark.

He repeated this same ritual on every one of more than 1,000 episodes over more than 30 years, and his steadfastness assured generations of children that the world was safe because it was the same place every day.

(Those sweaters were knit for him by his mother - about 12 a year - until her death in 1981, and one now hangs in the Smithsonian.)

I confess that I was still catching the occasional episode of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood when I was in high school and it went national on PBS in 1968.

In the days before 500 cable stations, there weren't a lot of choices. But it is also true that I felt for the shy and awkward Daniel Stripped Tiger the same secret affection I might have felt for a stuffed animal from my babyhood.

I didn't know it then, but I was as much a member of Fred Rogers' target audience as any 4-year-old.

When he was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1963, his charge was "to reach out to families and children through television." He said his mission was "to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who needs it."

"I am not interested in mass communications," he once said. "I'm much more interested in what happens between this person and the one watching. The space between the television set and that person who's watching is very holy ground."

He said he always hesitated to call his show a "children's show." He didn't want viewers like me "to feel they were looking at a baby program if they needed it."

The heartfelt letters he received from adults and young adults confirmed his instinct that everyone needs to be told "you are the only one like you" and "it's you I like," the bedrock values of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Many years later, I introduced my own children to Mr. Rogers, Mr. McFeely, the speedy delivery man, handyman Negri and the impossible Lady Elaine Fairchilde.

It was the early 1980s, and Sesame Street had pretty much left Mr. Rogers in its wake. It is hard to compete with an 8-foot bird and a giant snuffleupagus when all you have to offer are hand puppets.

At this time, too, Eddie Murphy did his memorable, and brutal, parody on Saturday Night Live that Mr. Rogers found funny and full of affection.

But my children liked Mr. Rogers, just as he knew they would. For the simple reason that I had liked him.

Fred Rogers believed that children could sense that the program meant something to their parents and that's why it was being presented to them.

"This kind of tradition, this sense of belonging, is a very powerful thing," he said.

Over the years of their growing up, he sang to my children from a toilet seat, promising that they would never go down the drain. He assured them that Santa could not really read their thoughts and see everything they did.

He showed them that it doesn't hurt to get a hair cut and he named his puppet king Friday XIII to make fun of superstitions.

But if he had a favorite subject, it was music, and musicians were frequent guests.

"If someone loves something in front of other people," he once said, "it's infectious, contagious. That's what happens with many of the musicians in the neighborhood."

By the time he filmed the final episode in August 2000 (the show still airs in some cities), Fred Rogers had been honored with an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement, two Peabody Awards for television excellence, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Television Hall of Fame.

Last July, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country's highest civilian honor.

I can only imagine how my hometown is grieving right now. Fred Rogers was a Pittsburgh institution in the best sense of that word.

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